Smithsonian scientists discover 7 new species of fish

Feb 04, 2011
This is a male Starksia langi -- one of the seven new species of blenny discovered by Smithsonian scientist Carole Baldwin and her team. Credit: Smithsonian

Things are not always what they seem when it comes to fish -- something scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the Ocean Science Foundation are finding out. Using modern genetic analysis, combined with traditional examination of morphology, the scientists discovered that what were once thought to be three species of blenny in the genus Starksia are actually 10 distinct species. The team's findings are published in the scientific journal ZooKeys, Feb. 3.

Starksia blennies, small (less than 2 inches) fish with elongated bodies, generally native to shallow to moderately deep rock and in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans, have been well-studied for more than 100 years. It would have been reasonable to assume that there was little about the group left to discover. Modern techniques, however, suggested otherwise. While trying to match larval stages of coral reef fish to adults through DNA, the team of scientists noticed contradictions between the preliminary and the current species classification. Further investigation revealed that the team was dealing with many species new to science, including the new Starksia blennies.

" has offered science a great new resource to examine old questions," said Carole Baldwin, a zoologist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the paper. "This discovery is a perfect example of how DNA barcoding is illuminating species that we've missed before, particularly small cryptic reef fishes like Starksia blennies. We don't know where we stand in terms of understanding , and our work suggests that current concepts may be surprisingly incomplete."

This is a female Starksia robertsoni -- one of the seven new species of blenny discovered by Smithsonian scientist Carole Baldwin and her team. Credit: Smithsonian

But DNA analysis cannot stand on its own—Baldwin and her team only recognize genetic lineages as species if they are supported by morphology. So traditional morphological analysis, such as comparing patterns of pigmentation and numbers of fin rays, is conducted to solidify their findings.

One interesting aspect of the research is that Starksia species that were thought to be broadly distributed throughout the Caribbean—as most Caribbean reef fish species are—break up into multiple species with geographically restricted ranges. One species in the study, for example, was divided into three—a species in the east (Bahamas/Turks and Caicos), one in the south (Curacao, Netherlands Antilles) and another in the west (Belize, Central America). Baldwin predicts that other widespread species in the genus may also represent species complexes that break into multiple, geographically after further study. Furthermore, the team's DNA data suggest that other types of Caribbean fish (e.g., some gobies) may similarly represent species complexes comprising numerous new species, and traditional concepts of speciation in the Caribbean may need to be re-evaluated.

This is a male Starksia williamsi -- one of the seven new species of blenny discovered by Smithsonian scientist Carole Baldwin and her team. Credit: Smithsonian

The team's combined molecular and morphological approach has not only increased the number of currently recognized species, it serves as an example of the continuing nature of scientific discovery. Because the resiliency of marine populations to human exploitation may be linked to richness, an improved understanding of the diversity and distribution of deep-reef life may be critical.

Explore further: Birds 'weigh' peanuts and choose heavier ones

Related Stories

New species of snapper discovered in Brazil

Mar 13, 2007

A popular game fish mistaken by scientists for a dog snapper is actually a new species discovered among the reefs of the Abrolhos region of the South Atlantic Ocean.

Major losses for Caribbean reef fish in last 15 years

Mar 19, 2009

By combining data from 48 studies of coral reefs from around the Caribbean, researchers have found that fish densities that have been stable for decades have given way to significant declines since 1995. The study appears ...

Recommended for you

Birds 'weigh' peanuts and choose heavier ones

17 hours ago

Many animals feed on seeds, acorns or nuts. The common feature of these are that they have shells and there is no direct way to know what's inside. How do the animals know how much and what quality of food ...

Estuaries protect Dungeness crabs from deadly parasites

May 22, 2015

Parasitic worms can pose a serious threat to the Dungeness crab, a commercially important fishery species found along the west coast of North America. The worms are thought to have caused or contributed to ...

An evolutionary heads-up—the brain size advantage

May 22, 2015

A larger brain brings better cognitive performance. And so it seems only logical that a larger brain would offer a higher survival potential. In the course of evolution, large brains should therefore win ...

Our bond with dogs may go back more than 27,000 years

May 21, 2015

Dogs' special relationship to humans may go back 27,000 to 40,000 years, according to genomic analysis of an ancient Taimyr wolf bone reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 21. Earlier genome ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.